Why most of the $100 million L.A. spends on homelessness goes to police

Men and women line up at Vet Hunters event at the Weingart Center on L.A.'s skid row.

Men and women line up at Vet Hunters event at the Weingart Center on L.A.’s skid row.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

A report showing that more than half the $100 million the city of Los Angeles spends each year on homelessness goes to police demonstrates that the city is focused on enforcement rather than getting people off the streets, homeless advocates said Friday.

“Supports what we’ve been saying for years that this city is doing almost nothing to advance housing solutions but continues down the expensive and inhumane process of criminalization that only makes the problem worse,” said Becky Dennison of Los Angeles Community Action Network, a skid row advocacy group, in an email.

Almost 15,000 people the LAPD arrested in 2013 were homeless, or 14% of those arrested, according to the report from the city administrative office. Labor costs for the arrests were estimated between $46 million and $80 million.


Arrests are not the only tasks the LAPD takes on as an estimated 23,000 people continue to live in the streets, decades after Los Angeles became known as the nation’s homeless capital. About $6 million in city money goes to the LAPD’s mental evaluation unit, a team of mental health professionals and police that intervenes with mentally ill people and connects them to services.

An additional $6.7 million is allocated to the Safer Cities Initiative, a team of 71 officers deployed on skid row who frequently interact with scores of mentally ill homeless people arrayed on the sidewalk.

Officer Deon Joseph, a longtime skid row senior lead officer, recently posted a letter on a downtown Los Angeles Facebook page listing some of the things that keep him busy, including “batteries against the mentally ill, tents blocking sidewalks, scuffles breaking out right in front of me, a hoard of mentally ill people who are still being pushed into the row from other communities, and thefts of wheelchairs and walkers from the handicapped by able bodied criminals.”

Joseph said he frequently arrests the same people over and over because of the revolving door for mentally ill people and others between the jails and prisons and skid row.

“I do not believe prison is the answer for most people struggling with mental issues,” Joseph wrote in the comment section of his post. “Sadly in today’s system we have to wait until they commit a violent crime to get them ‘help’ in a jail cell, instead of involuntary housing.”

Under a court settlement, homeless people can sleep on sidewalks overnight but must move along in the morning. At dawn, officers frequently can be seen waking people on skid row and in Venice, where tents line the streets.


On skid row, that interaction has grown increasingly tense as downtown Los Angeles enjoys an economic renaissance that has done little to improve the lot of the area’s chronically homeless.

If homeless people sleeping in their cars and vans fail to move along, police sometimes impound their cars, another lengthy procedure.

Philip Mangano, former Bush administration homeless czar and president of the American Roundtable to Abolish Homelessness, said the answer was to transfer the money spent on policing to building affordable housing.

“There’s literally only one issue: it’s creating units,” he said. The mental health and other services needed by the most fragile homeless people in need must come from Los Angeles County, he said.

The report from City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana released Thursday was commissioned by the City Council’s housing committee, which questioned why the homeless population grew 9% between 2011 and 2013 even as the city contributed millions to the homeless authority.

Santana found city librarians, recreation and parks, sanitation and paramedics also devote significant resources to handling homeless people but have no coordinated approach to guide them.


The report’s figures, he said, were conservative, calling for more time to study the issue. The Fire Department, for example, said 6.6 % of its ambulance trips in 2013-14 were for homeless people, but officials were unable to come up with a dollar figure.

Twitter: @geholland